The Truth Behind E League’s Viewership | THE NEXT LEVEL 09

Manny Anekal
Jun 7, 2016 · 12 min read

Exclusive: The Truth Behind E League’s Viewership

Story of the Week: We’ve now completed Week 2 in Turner’s grand experiment into eSports. Immediately after launch there were the standard, un-investigated headlines like “E League Debut Should Have Other Professional Sports Concerned”. As expected the headlines don’t come close to telling the full story. If that works for you, stop now. If you don’t mind numbers and want a peek behind the curtain, keep reading.

I believe that there are 3 questions that E League is hoping to answer:

  • Can a large media company unexperienced in eSports put on authentic programming?
  • Can eSports transition and compete on TV?
  • Can bringing traditional sports production to eSports increase viewership?

3 qualifying points to keep in mind as they’re critical:

  • This is very, very, very early; only taking into account the first two weeks of hopefully years to come
  • E League is scheduled on Friday Nights at 10PM or the “Death Slot” for TV programming
  • Today, eSports TV/Digital Revenue = Advertisers = Viewership

Let’s start with a quick overview of the TV ratings and the Week 1 metrics released by Turner PR highlighted by importance.

Great to see a 51% increase between Week 1 and Week 2. It’s myopic to draw trends from 2 data points but Ill make a slight attempt.

Week 2 should have been higher than Week 1 based on the Memorial Day Holiday. But Week 1’s Finals had a North American team whereas Week 2 were EU teams and therefore you’d expect Week 1 to be higher. Ill leave the Counter-Strike analysis to the E League experts but in Week 3 if a NA team makes it to the Finals, it will be interesting to see the ratings impact.

[Going forward, there will be a Weekly update on E League Ratings in eSports Weekly]

I’m not going to comment again on the minimal value of “Impressions/Viewers” when there’s no context. The biggest metrics to focus on: TV Viewers, Digital Avg. Concurrents and Total Minutes Engaged. Trust me, no $2M ad deals were done based on delivering Social Media Impressions. While the engagement numbers are solid, I’m going to focus on TV and Digital Viewership.

#1 AUTHENTIC PROGRAMMING

Every step of the way, Turner has been touting their priority to create the most authentic eSports experience and to learn from the community. I’ve seen a lot of eSports events and production and this was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

The vast Sports experience and millions that Turner invested clearly shows in both the Digital and TV broadcasts. The slick production value was expected. The biggest challenge is opening up eSports to a new audience and I believe Turner handled that very well. The Counter-Strike 101’s and analyst commentary demonstrated educating an audience which is clearly lacking in more traditional eSports streams. Huge props to Arby’s as well for creating a custom TV spot for E League. Don’t understand it? Good. That means you’re not a fan yet of Counter-Strike.

Can a large media company unexperienced in eSports put on authentic programming? Absolutely.

# 2 ESPORTS ON TV
While some may have thought Turner would be heavy handed with the production, I didn’t think this would be the biggest obstacle. I’ve said before that “eSports doesn’t need TV, TV needs eSports”. This is a more difficult challenge than authenticity. Let’s start by comparing E League to other eSports on TV in 2016:

[Nielsen Data from SportsTVRatings.com]

Not too bad considering Chasing The Cup aired on a Monday at 8pm. Very little comparison however.

E LEAGUE VS MLS and NHL

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is astonishing to me for this reason alone:

2011: NBC paid $2B or $200M/Year for NHL broadcast rights.
2015: ESPN/Fox/Univision paid $720M or $75M/Year for MLS broadcast rights

In the era of declining TV viewership and plummeting cable subscriptions, these large contracts are a huge weight on media companies. If Turner can continue to drive eSports ratings that outperform MLS on ESPN2 and the NHL, that’s an astonishing feat. We’re also not close to seeing eSports broadcast fees in those ranges but E League has done deals with Turner family property Esporte Interativo in Brazil and MCS Extreme bought the French rights. Turner initially said E League would distributed in 80 countries.

E LEAGUE VS THE BIG BANG THEORY

As we expand the comparison further, another story emerges. If Turner wasn’t programming E League, what would be playing instead? The Big Bang Theory clearly draws a lot more viewers than E League ~5X higher. But TBBT cost Turner the highest ever payment for a syndicated show at $1.5M+ per episode, more than the $1M per episode they paid for Seinfeld. Now look at this from a TV Executive perspective: If E League costs less per viewer than TBBT, that’s a good ROI. However, I’m not going to play TV Executive and guess E League total costs which would have provided a good baseline.

E LEAGUE VS CABLE

Expanding even further out, when compared against general Cable Entertainment, E League’s first 2 Weeks would not even be in the Top 100. Provides perspective on the overall scale of TV.

E LEAGUE VS SPORTS

Now this is the Billion Dollar bet. These are the top Sports ratings by Category over the 2 weeks that E League has run. Remember the statements about eSports being bigger than the NBA in viewership? Nope. In fact, NBA ratings this year set records for both TNT (coincidentally another Turner company) and ABC. However focus on these points:

  • PGA: Solidly beating the Sunday Final Round of the Dean & Deluca Invitational. This isn’t a tiny event — the total purse was almost $7M.
  • NASCAR/UFC: Both NASCAR and UFC have been hailed as the sport of the future and targeted to a younger audience. eSports is within relative striking distance. Ill go out on a limb here: In 2 years eSports can eclipse UFC, NASCAR on Cable and get close to MLB.

Just for fun here’s 2 more comparisons.

I’d love to know what it costs to put on “First Take” but Stephen A Smith’s salary alone is $3M+/Year. Former “First Take” host Skip Bayless is getting $26M/4 Years at FS1. That’s a lot of money for not a lot of viewers.

I couldn’t resist this one — how did E League do against eSports ranter Colin Cowherd?

Maybe Colin should start playing games. Sure that doesn’t count his audio listeners but E League numbers don’t include the digital viewership as well.

  • Can eSports transition and compete on TV? Yes but a long way to go.

E LEAGUE VS DIGITAL OR THE POWER OF TWITCH

After analyzing the Twitch data, these results were probably more surprising than the TV ratings. While TV is definitely needed to close the large ad deals, Twitch makes up 80%+ of the total content. Here are the top Twitch Channels during E League’s Week 1:

[This data is directly from Twitch’s API published by Gamoloco, a French eSports analytics company.]

Who’s that at #1 you ask? Meet Lirik, one of the most popular streamers on Twitch with 1.4M followers and another 300K on Twitter who started in 2011. As I referenced the high costs of Sports TV rights vs. current viewership, something similar is at work here. Take a look at what it looked like watching Lirik stream during the week vs. E League:

Most Twitch streamers use Face Cams, Green Screens, Overlay Graphics or a combination of all 3 — Lirik is audio only. Now compare that to the massive production cost required to put on E League.

You can argue that streamers are on longer causing more hours watched, they play popular games, that Overwatch just came out, etc. etc., etc. But if a streamer can draw half the Average audience for the cost of probably dinner delivery — that ROI comparison is not even close.

The additional question becomes what is the overall baseline value of Twitch and it’s community when introducing any eSport onto it’s platform. With Facebook jumping in the eSports Live Streaming pool, times ahead will be interesting.

  • Can bringing traditional sports production to eSports increase viewership? Yes but at much higher production costs.

E LEAGUE SEASON 2
This is a solid first attempt by Turner. There are few areas that I would recommend and hope for Season 2 to grow viewership:

  • Pre-Launch Content: Turner created a ton of player, team, and fun video content during the Week 1 launch. Twitter and Periscope were used for Behind the Scenes. But why release it so late? Start seeding this much earlier.
  • Marketing: I live in NYC and have been actively looking for E League ads. I have seen a grand total of 1 — and that happened just this week. I’ve seen promo’s on Twitch and Reddit — but Turner already has that audience. Just using the NCAA Tournament and NBA Playoffs would have been a prime opportunity to pump the messaging. Hope to see more branding and cross-promotion across Turner’s brands. Here’s a Free one E League Marketing Team: Use Adult Swim-type promo’s. It’s perfect for this audience.
  • New Game: I believe Season 2 will showcase another title and I’m hoping its not a Shooter. Outside of the violent issues with brand partnerships, other genres may perform better. I love fighters like Street Fighter V but it doesn’t draw huge numbers. The sleeper hit and the closest to Poker? Hearthstone. While the learning curve is much greater than Counter-Strike and not nearly as visceral, it’s highly popular and draws digital viewers. If anyone can make it exciting, it can be Turner.
  • Time Slot: We’ve seen how eSports performs on the worst day and worst time of the week. Give it a shot at a better time. How about Sunday afternoons? This audience wasn’t even born when Back to the Future Part 3 was released. Just try it.

That may have been a lot to digest but here’s your TL/DR:

Turner can bring their sports production chops to eSports, the early weeks on TV are showing promise for viewership against traditional sports like NHL, MLS and newer ones like UFC and NASCAR but digital viewership may not see a huge spike based on the increased production value.


The eSports Injury Crisis

Very little has been focused on the main cause of eSports injures, RSI’s, or Repetitive Strain Injuries.

My Take: I covered health, nutrition, apparel, and training opportunities for eSports but this is just as important. Anyone at a keyboard all day — probably a lot of you — know how it affects your hands and wrists. Now multiply that by 10X the daily effort and that your income depends on it and it becomes even more important. There are a few companies working on products that I can’t reveal yet but should directly tackle this issue. If a research report on the tennis elbow market is fetching $4,325 the overall pie has to be big.

India and eSports

Flipkart is bringing eSports to India with an online tournament featuring FIFA, CS:GO, LoL and DOTA2.

My Take: Some stats to ponder:

Gaming PC’s are rare in India and consoles even more so. However that seems to be changing rapidly. Flipkart says that in the last 6 months, Gaming purchases have increased by 50%. Even with that I’m not sure I would include Console titles in the 1st event. The much bigger opportunity in the next few years will be PC and eventually mobile — whichever publisher gets there first.

New eSport Title Battleborn Loses Lead Writer Month After Launch
Aaron Linde is leaving Gearbox Software where he helped develop the story and characters for Battleborn.

My Take: I don’t normally cover developer news or general gaming announcements. However, I think this sheds some light on another aspect of this developing industry: What exactly is an eSport? Without delving into a deep discussion on game design, the biggest takeaway is to be cautious about betting huge on a new game as a the “Next Big eSport” without taking time to develop it via the community and grassroots efforts.

Just because you call a game an eSport doesn’t make it so. In foreshadowing, Bethesda’s similarly named Battlecry has been quiet on the eSports front for a year now.

SPONSOR SPOTLIGHT: COMCAST

Comcast enters eSports with multi-faceted partnership with Evil Geniuses and ESL.

My Take: Ill continue to say it — it’s great to see another major brand make the investment in eSports. This is interesting considering the multiple components as the first entry into the space. The 12-month program includes:

  • Team Sponsorship: I think Evil Geniuses is a great team selection (although claiming “world’s best video game team” is a bit much). Not only did they take home the largest eSports prize ever at $6.6M by winning The International 2015 but also won the first season of the Halo Championship Series. The integration of Comcast’s Pro-Gigabit service and Xfinity X1 video service into their training facilities is a natural fit. Non-endemic brand sponsors for teams are rare and there are few popular US based eSports teams left that don’t have one. What’s that mean? If I’m those team owners, my price just went up.
  • Events: Being with your audience and being able to showcase your offering are a great way to activate at eSports events. IEM Oakland, PAX Prime, and the ESL CS:GO League should draw decent crowds.
  • Games: This is the one puzzling aspect for me. More than likely to due tothe ESL relationship but Halo Championship Series doesn’t draw much viewership — last Thursday night’s event was at 6,000 viewers when I checked. In a case of unfortunate timing, the day before the announcement which included Heroes of the Storm, Yahoo released an in depth report on it’s eSports problem and team’s dropping out.

Randomly, I found a Xfinity sponsored Hearthstone tournament via FaceIt/Twitch. As mentioned above with Turner, Hearthstone is great for brands as it’s safe and offers solid viewership.

Looking into this further, I was surprised by the overall lack of involvement by Telco/Broadband companies as their product is 100% suited for this audience: Fast-internet connections for playing/watching Gaming coupled with mobile subscriptions. Here’s an analysis of the US Broadband Market Share from 2015:

This is an area that should see interest from Verizon, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Charter as well.

You’ll see another announcement in this category before the end of the year.


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Manny Anekal

Written by

esports. Founder and CEO: The Next Level (Media), Versus Sports (Team), and Versus Consulting. Podcast → https://soundcloud.com/tnlmedia

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